3) How it Feels (Description of my bipolar experience, first posted November 2014)

OK, let’s start with depression. I’m working from memory here, because I haven’t suffered a major depression for years, and in fact I think I’ve only had one, but it lasted a long time. I know I had 2 different courses of anti-depressants, back in my 20s – the first ones didn’t seem to do much, I became slightly less sad-feeling, but was still tired and lethargic and lacking in interest in anything. The second set had an extremely dramatic effect, and led to my most obvious previous manic period, but I’ll go into my history in another post. In recent years, I’ve only felt the beginnings of depressive symptoms at the onset of winter, and I’ve always been able to beat it with light therapy, and watching my diet and exercise. Until this year I’ve always assumed I’m just slightly depressive but that I’d learned to manage it.

So what does depression feel like to me? I remember numbness, like being shrouded in fog, nothing can pierce through and reach me. And eventually the fog turns into stone walls, high enough to even block out the light, and you know that outside the walls there’s just miles of fog. No emotion or interest in anything or anyone, frozen, dead inside. Unable to move, helpless, overwhelmed. A feeling of lowering dread – you know that shiver you get when a cloud passes in front of the sun and you’re suddenly in a cold shadow? Imagine waking up with that feeling every single day and not being able to shake it off. Thoughts slowed down, bones heavy, your body feels like a sack of potatoes, lumpy, cold, hard, ugly. Feeling pathetic, you look at yourself and know there’s nothing wrong, so why are you being so stupid and lazy and pathetic? Feeling useless, unloveable. Invisible. Talking to people is impossible. If you try and say how you feel they’ll think you’re a fraud, a fat, lazy fraud, so you don’t say anything. And when you’re with other people talking you can actually seem normal, they don’t notice anything, so then you know you must actually be a fraud, and wonder why you can’t do anything about it. I never got as far as feeling suicidal, so I can’t describe that exactly – I remember not really caring if I lived, but being too scared to die. And mostly just wanting to sleep – eat myself into a coma and hibernate for a decade or so and hope things were better when I woke up.

Like I said, haven’t been there for a long time. Thank God. I think I’d rather live in manic cloud-cuckoo-land and lose my marbles completely than ever go through that again. And that’s not even ‘severe’ depression, because it didn’t involve actively wanting to take my life. I honestly can’t imagine how bad it could get. Since that period I’ve done everything I can think of to avoid getting depressed, I just dread it more than anything else. But now I have to be careful that my anti-depressant methods don’t send me too far the other way. Heigh-ho, swings and roundabouts.

So, you want to hear about the other end of the seesaw that is my bipolar life? (See what I did there? Swings and roundabouts? Never mind.)

Acute mania. Some of this is going to sound weird and trippy, because it was. Looking back afterwards, the delusional parts were more like vivid dreams than anything else, in which things seemed to connect and make perfect sense at the time, but when you look back you can see there was no connection, no coherence, no pattern, just a crazy jumbled mind seeing strange things.

So it starts with feeling strong, and full of energy. Positive, optimistic, pleased with myself, proud of what I’ve achieved. Knowing I look good, and sure that other people have noticed that, feeling watched and admired. As my self-esteem goes up, so does my energy, and my motivation to keep dieting and exercising. Soon I’m feeling wonderful, physically amazingly powerful, able to do anything. Sure that it’s being noticed at work, that I’m doing more than anyone, that I’m tireless. My brain is running in 6th gear, full of ideas and plans. I’m able to read situations instantly, understand everything that’s going on around me, make logical connections so quickly I feel like I’m leaving everyone else behind. So it’s a little bit hard to talk to people sometimes, but that doesn’t matter, I’ll just find new clever people to hang out with, ones that can appreciate my brilliant mind and share my thoughts. I don’t need much sleep any more – I know I should, but after 3 or 4 hours I just wake up, my mind racing and buzzing with thoughts, not worries, but good thoughts, plans and ideas for all the things I can do now. My energy level becomes even more excessive, I can’t keep still or do anything slowly. I’m even walking fast, leaving everyone behind, wondering if they’ve noticed how unusual that is, but unable to stop myself. My brain now running in 10th gear, I’m noticing weird abilities. I can see so clearly what people are thinking and predict what they’re going to do. I can look over the whole warehouse at work and see every person and their movements, work out the pattern of it all like a giant computer program and know exactly how it goes. I’m wondering if I look different, do I kind of glow with this new energy, can everyone see it? What do they think? Starting to shade into paranoia. What if people assume I’m on drugs? Do they already think that? They must have noticed something. They must be talking about me. Some people must hate me, disapprove of me, be scared of me. I can feel it. Eyes in my back. When I put status updates on Facebook I can feel disapproval coming back out of the screen, some people’s words all look like criticism, others like admiration. I’m reading between the lines. There’s 10 times as much going on between the lines as there is in the words. I’m seeing messages and hints in random posts or words. My mind is spinning, gears slipping as it revs too fast. Becoming fixated on one idea, one random thought that won’t go away, that takes on a huge significance. Comes out of nowhere, means nothing, seems unbelievable at first, but becomes more and more real the more my mind fixates on it. It won’t go away. I see it everywhere, everything I see or hear refers to this one idea. Songs, thoughts, Facebook posts, random words, they all point to this one thing, it’s so obvious. It’s so huge, so obvious, so clear, of course everyone else can see it, they must all be talking about it. They’re all talking about me. Lee’s ill with a stomach upset which won’t go, so that means he must have seen it too, he’s fretting himself sick, I need to do something about it, clear the air, make sure it’s not just in my head.

But it is.

Bit of a shocker, that. Very hard to describe the fallout in the couple of weeks following, but I was all over the place. It took at least a week for me to fully accept that none of it was real, and then I was terrified, humiliated, guilty… bad times. That was around the end of April, and it took till September to get an appointment with an actual psychiatrist, after going through different levels of medical advice, and after I persisted and got pushy because my GP flatly refused to believe there was anything wrong with me, and actually laughed when I said I think I might be bipolar. I’d started reading up on delusional disorders to try and work out for myself what the hell was going on, but I was desperate for medical help to make sure it didn’t happen again. Anyway, I got there eventually, and come late October here I am, on Quetiapine, which is meant to smooth out the transitions, keep me calm, and stop recurrences of either severe depression or acute mania.

I was going to include a piece about hypomania, but I think I’ll do that separately again. That’s the one that wasn’t described much in the medical definition, but which takes up most of my life. So you’ve seen the extremes, as far as I’ve seen them. Compared to other people with this illness, mine aren’t extreme at all. I’ve never tried to kill myself when I was depressed. And when I was manic I didn’t (a) sleep with lots of people, (b) spend all our money and run up big debts, (c) invent a new identity and fly off to live on another continent… The possibilities are almost literally endless, but apparently promiscuity and huge spending are very common, and luckily I didn’t experience any urge to do either of those. So it could have been worse.

Still, scary as hell, though.

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